Insider Audio, Sept 1998
"Do you have this record?" "Has this piece ever been recorded?" "When did this album come out?" "Who's the soloist on this disc?" "Which one is this group's latest?" In the days when record-store personnel did more than inspect your shopping bags and serve lattes, if you asked any of these questions, or almost any question about a recording, you would invariably get the response, "Let me look it up in Schwann."
The Schwann catalog, also known over the years as The Schwann Long Playing Record Guide, The Schwann Record & Tape Guide, Schwann Opus, and a few other variations, has been the ne plus ultra of reference guides to American recorded music since it was started in 1949 by a Cambridge, Mass., record store owner named William Schwann.
Schwann went to school in Kentucky, and when I met him in 1981, he still had a bit of the Kentucky Colonel about him. He was a large, friendly, soft-spoken man, with a bit of a patrician air, but with nothing but kind words for those around him. He started his professional life as an organist, coming to Boston in the 1930s to study with the great E. Power Biggs, and was able to supplement his income by writing music criticism for local newspapers and setting up a small record shop--called, oddly enough, The Record Shop--across the street from MIT. "I was in a situation I always wanted to be in," he told me. "I was getting free tickets from the newspapers and free records from the store."
After World War II, in the face of shortages of the shellac used in 78 rpm records, he started a record dealers' association that allowed stores to share resources and trade inventory. In 1948, the LP was introduced, and by October 1949, there had been an explosion in recorded repertory (or so it appeared at the time): 11 labels had issued some 650 classical and popular discs. "My memory was never all that good," he explained, "and I could never remember which records were on which labels, so I got the idea for a catalog that would combine all the labels." The first issue, released that month, contained 24 typewritten pages.
Distributed through his dealer network. it quickly sold out its run of 11,000 copies. With the second issue, the catalog went from bi-monthly to monthly, and within a year it was being distributed nationally through record dealers, and Schwann was selling ads to record companies to generate revenue. In 1953, after 14 years in retail, he closed the store and devoted full time to the publication, which now had a staff and offices across the Charles River in Boston's Back Bay.
Accuracy and completeness were always the hallmarks of the Schwann catalog. Schwann was a stickler for detail and relied on his loyal readership to point out mistakes and suggest changes. Errors never lasted long in print, and soon the catalog gained a reputation for exactitude that made it as valued a reference work as the Grove or Grout musical encyclopedias. Classical listings included all of the soloists, conductors and ensembles. Cross-listings let the reader easily find the other works on a disc. Jazz and pop listings, in the first month, gave song titles and, in later years, recording information; in subsequent issues, the date of the initial expanded listing was included for cross-referencing.
As the record industry grew, the amount of information Schwann encompassed became staggering, but the accuracy of that information, the consistency of the formatting and the overall usefulness of the work maintained its amazingly high level. Records that were about to be deleted by the labels were highlighted, so you knew that if you wanted a copy, you'd better run out and get it before it disappeared.
And as new genres and technologies developed, the catalog adapted. When Wendy Carlos' Switched-On Bach came out, and there seemed to be no easy way to classify it (do you list it in the classical section under Bach, or under Carlos? Or is it pop?), Schwann created a new category: Electronic Music. When the size of the publication started to get unwieldy, he created a "supplementary" catalog, issued less frequently, with categories like spoken-word and international folk that didn't have to be updated quite as often. Stereo recordings appeared-- Schwann responded by adopting new typefaces that allowed the reader to differentiate between stereo and mono versions. Then there were open-reel tapes, cassettes, 8-tracks, three competing quadraphonic formats, "audiophile" and dbx- and CX-encoded LPs, and finally CDs-- all of which were handled cleverly and gracefully.
As a teenager, every couple of months I would go into my favorite big-city record store, take a new issue of Schwann off the huge stack by the front door, and drop a quarter in the box--the catalogs were the only items in the store sold on the honor system. I would immediately turn to the "New Listings" section, which let me know which experimental composers had just gotten their works recorded, and which of my favorite bands had new albums out. Often, stores would have new records in stock a month or two before they appeared in Schwann, but sometimes, when the record labels were able to release the information well enough in advance of the actual disc, the catalog got it first, and it was with the greatest of pleasure that I could point to a listing in the catalog and say to the clerk, "You really should get this." Schwann sold the catalog to ABC Leisure publications (which also published the late, lamented High Fidelity and Musical America) in the mid-'70s, with the proviso that he stay on as publisher for ten years. ABC came close to killing the goose when they started selling ads in the catalog to record dealers, some of whom used the space to advertise cut-rate prices. Other dealers, naturally enough, were furious and stopped selling the publication. In response, ABC started making the catalog available by mail subscription, but they couldn't make up for the loss of dealer sales, and even after they stopped selling the offending ads, according to a source who worked for Schwann at the time, the catalog never fully recovered from the debacle.
Schwann's contributions to the music industry did not go unnoticed: He was twice commissioned by the RIAA to create and catalog a "White House Record Collection," with the express purpose of promoting the best American performers and composers in all genres. He retired from the publication that bore his name in 1985. After that, the catalog was kicked around among several owners (one, the former publisher of Soap Opera Digest, flipped it after only three months), and in 1991 it was bought by Stereophile magazine. A couple of years later the Boston office was shut down and the catalog moved in with its parent company in Santa Fe, N.M. Stereophile put a lot of energy into the catalog, adding to the listings reviews and feature articles by its staff, and they divided it into two volumes: Schwann Opus, for classical records, and Schwann Spectrum for jazz and pop.
In 1996, the publication was bought by Valley Media in Woodlands, Calif., the largest independent CD distributor in the country. Since Valley took over, only the classical catalog has been published, although the non-classical catalog, according to a staff member, is due to return sometime in the next year. (The editorial offices are still in Santa Fe.) Schwann Opus is now in a large 8x11 format, with over 1,000 pages, and comes out quarterly. The Artist issue, which lists records by performer as opposed to composer, and which in past years was issued at almost random intervals (the time between issues could range from 18 months to four years) is now promised to be an annual project.
As for Bill, he remained a well-known figure in the Boston classical music scene, serving as an adviser and board member for numerous musical organizations and schools. He was also an avid mountain climber, conquering most of the 4,000-foot peaks in New Hampshire's White Mountains, and an ardent supporter of environmental causes. What always blew me away about the Schwann catalog was not just that it was an invaluable compendium of musical knowledge, it was that this little book was the absolute paragon of how information of the highest quality, dense and ever-changing, could be organized and presented. Accuracy was paramount, but so was space--what today we would call bandwidth. Spend some time with the catalog and you'll see what I mean. The amount of information presented is staggering, and the clarity and efficiency of the formatting are nothing short of brilliant. "Space was always a concern," Schwann told me. "Unlike a newspaper, when you run out of space, you can't just cut some copy. I'm always looking for new abbreviations, different ways to organize the listings. Sometimes I'll go away on vacation and spend the whole time thinking about space problems."
There are many lessons to be learned by us today from a man who cared deeply not only about the information he was conveying, but also about how it was conveyed. Bill Schwann died on June 7, 1998 at the age of 85. All of us who work with music owe him our thanks.
Paul Lehrman, editorial director of Mix Online, played some pieces by Alexander Tcherepnin in his first piano recital at age 8. When he was 12, he built a Theremin, but it didn't work very well. Today, he owns several thousand LPs, tapes and CDs, all very carefully organized.
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